Though we, technically, had a day off today (translation: we were on our own…no guide), we decided to visit three temples, but the first and last were the most special to us. The first was the Yonghe Gong Temple (Lama Temple) or Harmony and Peace Palace Lamasery, and the final visit was to The Temple of Heaven. We also spent a brief time at the Confucian Temple, but will focus this blog on the Yonghe Gong Temple and The Temple of Heaven.
The gates of the Yonghe Gong open to a lovely tree-lined walkway that opens to the gorgeous red, blue and yellow temple filled with people lighting incense, praying and visiting the various Buddhas of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. In 1722, the buildings were converted from the Prince Yongzheng’s residence to a lamasery, or monastery for monks, when the Prince ascended to the Emperor’s role. It is said to be the only significant temple in Beijing that survived the cultural revolution.
There are five main halls, with open-air courtyards between each building, where visitors can light incense and kneel in prayer. It is a very peaceful and quiet place, which are two aspects that are not that easy to find here in Beijing. This temple offers the visitor a sense of calm as you view the Buddha statues, Boddhisatvas and protectors that surround and safeguard the temple. The most amazing sight at Yonghe Gong is the Maitreya Buddha, or Future Buddha, that sits in the furthest hall called The Pavillion of Ten Thousand Happinesses. It stands proud and breathtaking at 85 feet tall, created from a single piece of white sandalwood. It is so massive, yet still serene and tranquil.
The most meaningful relic at the Lama Temple and one that will be of great importance in our lifetime is the Golden Urn. It is an urn that was used historically in the selection of important reincarnate lamas and it is debated if it will control the selection of future Tibetan lamas. In Tibet, on several occasions, children believed to be the reincarnations of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama have been identified through a complex process that sometimes involves a lottery method, in which names of candidates are written on folded slips of paper placed in a golden urn. As the present Dalai Lama is 80 years of age, there will most certainly be a use for the Golden Urn in choosing the next reincarnate as the 15th Dalai Lama. It will be controversial if the Golden Urn, under the control of the Communist People’s Republic of China, will be used to select the next Dalai Lama. The selection process has been a recent controversial issue, because the People’s Republic of China used it to select their own Panchen Lama, where the Dalai Lama named a different lama to be the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet. It will be a sad and interesting time when the current Dalai Lama leaves this world for another.
The story of the Panchen Lama is very near and dear to our hearts through Brad’s book, The Dharma King, which he wrote years ago after research and travel to China and Tibet to understand the trials and tribulations of the Tibetan monks and Buddhists. If you haven’t already, it is a beautifully written (forgive the bias), yet heart-wrenching story, of the Panchen Lama and the people of Tibet.
Our last visit of the day was to the Temple of Heaven. We had an adventure just getting to the temple first! We went in for lunch to a restaurant with no english menus, no english speakers and we managed to somehow order with hand signs and then eat a surprisingly tasty meal. After lunch, we navigated the Beijing subway system and bought tickets and rode across town (it was surprisingly easy, actually) to the Temple of Heaven.
This temple truly lives up to its name. This is the place where the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties would go to worship the heavens for a good harvest for the people of China. After a stroll through the vast, yet pristine and subdued, gardens filled with performers, partners dancing, card games and Tai Chi lessons, a short stairway leads you to the Temple of Heaven surrounded by four other smaller temples. The temple is a circular masterpiece alight with vibrant colors and an almost mosque-like spire at the top of the blue roofed temple that literally feel like it reaches to the heavens above. It is magnificent.
It was a change of pace today to be in this city at these temples and feel removed from the day to day life here. Beijing moves at a shockingly hurried pace…breakneck speed. There was pushing and shoving at the Forbidden City. There is little tolerance for personal space and the cars, bikes and scooters have very little regard for anyone else on the streets, especially pedestrians. We were in for a very rude awakening when we tried to cross an intersection with the invitation of a green walking light, yet almost lost our lives. Pedestrians have no right of way, anywhere, ever. These are simply cultural differences, of which we are seeing so very many on our journey and we have appreciation for all variances.
Today, was a very special day exploring Beijing and we feel grateful everyday for this opportunity to explore this great and diverse world around us.
Tomorrow…The Great Wall!